In the last few posts, I’ve been trying to cover some of the foundational topics of bread making. Today, I want to take a step back and talk about the steps involved in the overall process. My hope is that this will provide a general framework so that you know what to expect in a recipe, and even maybe start thinking about coming up with your own. Peter Reinhart says that the art of bread making involves 12 steps, I will try to give a brief description of each below:
1. Mise en Place
This one isn’t really specific to bread. Before you begin any recipe, you always want to make sure that you have all the ingredients, tools and equipment. Because I’m always flip-flopping between baking at home and at school, I can tell you from experience that it’s quite frustrating when you are about to make bread or score bread and then you realize that you forgot your malt powder or your lame at school. Don’t forget to also make sure you have the right amount of ingredients — this includes time! There’s nothing worse than being mid-way and realizing that you don’t have time to finish your bulk before your dinner reservations. This also includes accounting for the amount of time for your preferement to mature, the proper temperature for your water calculated, and so on.
2. Mixing (or Kneading)
Why do we knead? Kneading has three purposes: it evenly disperses ingredients, initiates the fermentation process, and develops the gluten that gives the bread its strength and structure.
Mixing and kneading can be done by hand, but many people prefer to use a machine. It’ s hard to over-mix dough by hand, but easy to do with a machine, so be careful! You also want to make sure you don’t take the dough beyond the DDT with the heat added from friction caused by machine mixing. If the dough becomes too hot and is over-mixed, the gluten bonds will break down, leading to a loss of colour and flavour.
The strength of the dough does not have to be developed in the mixing stage, it can be developed with stretch and folds during bulk fermentation. As shown in Jim Lahey’s no-knead method, gluten can develop over time.
Hand mixing: One approach is to first incorporate the ingredients in a mixing bowl, and the once the dough has started come together, work it on the table. As you are working the dough to develop the gluten, you push out away from you and roll it back on top onto itself, rotate it and repeat the process.
Electric Stand Mixing: The type of mixers will also have a different effect on the dough. The same dough placed in a spiral, or a planetary mixer will need to be treated differently.
Three Mixing Styles:
All of the styles described below include an initial mixing stage to completely bring the dough together, which lasts 3 to 4 minutes on low speed.
Short mix: the dough is mixed for an additional 1 to 2 minutes on medium setting, when dough is mixed to this stage, it is usually followed by a long bulk fermentation with plenty of stretch and folds until full gluten development is achieved. This process can take up to 4 hours; it is very good for the dough, since it will develop more flavour due to a slow fermentation process. This technique is often used to achieve bread with an open crumb, but the disadvantage is that it’s pretty time consuming. It’s not something you can pull together in an afternoon.
Intensive mix: the dough is mixed for an additional 4 to 15 minutes on medium setting, until full gluten development is achieved. This technique speeds up fermentation and is not ideal for flavour development, but it is OK for enriched doughs.
Improved mix: the dough is mixed for an additional 2 to 4 minutes on medium setting, with medium gluten development (an almost perfect window test). This technique will give the dough a jump start on initial gluten development, which will continue to during the bulk fermentation stage. The improved mixing method is a happy medium between the short mixing and the intensive mixing method.
3. First Fermentation (also known as primary or bulk fermentation)
Bulk Fermentation is the first stage of fermentation. Fermentation begins the minute you incorporate a sourdough culture (levain) or a commercial yeast-generated preferment. However it is during bulk fermentation, the stage after mixing, that the dough is left to do the majority of its fermentation. Fermentation is responsible for the flavour in the dough, as well as its rise and open crumb. As it ferments, the gluten bonds in the dough are also continuing to develop, creating a stronger structure. The bulk fermentation can occur at various temperatures but the optimal range is the in the desired dough temperature (DDT).
Degassing (punching down) or Folding
Degassing, sometimes referred to as “punching down” the dough is done to expel some of the carbon dioxide trapped in the bread. This is important because if too much carbon dioxide accumulates it with sort of choke the yeast. Degassing also relaxes the gluten, evenly distributes the temperature, and redistributes nutrients for an even feeding cycle. To de-gas, lift a third of the dough onto it itself, and with an open hand press down with enough force to deflate the dough. Repeat.
Performing stretch and folds to the dough is an alternative to degassing. Stretch and folds are applied in instances of long bulk fermentation. There are a few different ways you do this:
(1) On the workbench: remove dough onto a surface that has been lightly misted with water. Moisten your hands and stretch the dough upwards from one side, folding it over to the other. Repeat on all four sides.
(2) An alternative to the folding method is called the bucket method. While it’s not as effective as folding dough on a surface, it still works quite well. With wet hands, plunge your hands into the container, reach down and grab the dough, and try to fold it back onto itself. Repeat for all four corners.
(3) Another way of strengthening dough I’ve seen is called lamination. This involves you stretching the dough out very thinly onto a work surface and then folding it into thirds one way and again into thirds the other way.
4. Dividing, 5. Pre-shaping and 6. Benching
Once the bulk fermentation is finished, the dough is divided by hand with a bench scraper and scaled to the desired weight. It is then roughly shaped based on the eventual form: miche, boule, batard, baguette, etc. Roughly pre-shaping makes the task of final shaping much easier. The pre-shaped loaves are then left to relax the gluten (this is referred to as “benching”) before the final shaping.
7. Final Shaping, 8. Panning
There are many ways to shape bread: rolls, boules, batards, baguettes, etc… Regardless of the shape, the seam must be at the bottom so it doesn’t open up while baking. Once shaped, the loaves go into bannetons, baker’s linen (couche) or in various moulds/loaf pans (“panning”).
9. Second Fermentation (Proofing)
Breads normally complete their final proofing in 60 to 90 minutes. Alternatively, they can be held overnight in the fridge to retard until the next day to improve flavour, colour and texture. Before the final proofing, the dough should be covered to prevent dehydration at the surface. This can be achieved by spraying with a vegetable oil spray or covering with plastic (shower caps work pretty well for this). At this point, they can be placed in temperature/ humidity controlled proofers, or at room temperature or even in the fridge overnight until they are ready to be baked. This second stage of fermentation is for the dough to develop more flavour and expand in size. You can check to see if the dough is ready (fully proofed) with something called the spring test: poke the dough with your finger, and it should take a few seconds to rebound.
Scoring and 10. Baking
Scoring, also called cutting, docking, slashing, is done to release tension in the dough and also to allow you to control exactly where the bread will expand during baking. Scoring the dough can also be done for aesthetics. There are a ton of really cool videos out there showing how creative and artistic you can get with this. Some breads like ciabatta and focaccia go into the oven without scoring. Other breads (e.g. sourdoughs) need to be scored for proper oven spring. If left un-scored, the loaves will burst open making the bread visually unappealing.
Depending on what you are making, the ideal set-up will be different. For instance, when I’m baking baguettes and ciabattas, I get the best results from an oven with bottom heat, such as a deck oven. This is easily replicated with a pre-heated pizza stone, ceramic tile or a baker’s steel. The thicker the stone, ceramic or steel, the better heat retention. It’s also recommended that you add a preheated cast iron pan at the bottom and add water just before baking for steam.
Generally, you want to avoid baking bread with a convection oven because the moving air will dries to crust too fast. If you are using a convection oven, reduce oven temperature by 50°F and 1/5th of its suggested baking time. You will also want to rotate your bread halfway through the bake.
How do you know when the bread is done? Many recipes will suggest looking for a hollow noise when the loaf is tapped. If you want to be really precise, you can insert a probe thermometer into the loaf. It’s ready when the internal temperature reaches 93°C/200°F to 96°C/205°F.
11. Cooling, and 12. Packaging.
Once the loaf is done, transfer it to a cooling rack. This step is the hardest: do not cut into it until the bread has completely cooled. The loaf needs time after baking for the steam to escape and for the crumb to properly form.
Most breads are best consumed on the same day, but some sourdough loaves will continue to develop flavour over time and are best to consume a few days after. When giving bread to students or teachers, I tend to use brown paper bags to ensure that the loaf can breathe and the crust stays crisp. Day olds and left overs, usually don’t happen with a class of 20+ students, but on the rare occasion, they can easily be turned into croutons and bread crumbs. Baked bread also freezes wonderfully. At home. I like to cut it into slices before freezing, that way we can eat it a few slices at a time.
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Hamelman, J. (2012). Bread: a bakers book of techniques and formulas. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
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Migoya, Francisco. (2010). The Modern Cafe. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
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